Sex scandals, land scam and suppressing cases against priests: A look into what forced Kerala Church to the edge

Sex scandals, land scam, and charges of suppressing cases against priests. As Kerala Church, across denominations, fights the accusations, The Indian Express reports on what has brought it here and the debate within.

Written by Shaju Philip | Updated: July 22, 2018 10:08:56 am
Priest Job Mathew being taken to court. Priest Job Mathew being taken to court. (File)

On February 15, a 36-year-old employed in a private financial firm was collecting proofs to avoid paying excess tax. The management graduate, hailing from an Orthodox Syrian Christian family, wanted to submit his wife’s insurance policy. Sitting in his house at his native village, 20 km from Kottayam, he logged into his wife’s gmail account to get the statement.

As his wife sat beside him, he stumbled upon a bank statement which showed Rs 9,600 deducted from her account towards a bill from a five-star Kochi hotel in January. When he questioned her, she broke down claiming sexual exploitation going back 17 years by at least five priests of their Church, saying one of them had taken her to that hotel.

As evidence, she showed call details, chat history, social media accounts and bank statements. Since then, two of the priests have been arrested, while two have moved the Supreme Court for anticipatory bail.

Just 38 km away, at Kuravilangad, on June 30, a nun accused Bishop Franco Mulakkal of the Jalandhar Catholic diocese of rape, saying he had assaulted her 13 times between 2014 and 2016. After she made the charge, others came forward saying the Bishop, who hails from Kerala, had forced at least 18 inmates to quit the order. Police are probing.

A few days later, a 39-year-old accused priest Binu George, of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in Alappuzha district, of sexual assault in 2014. The case is being probed.

The allegations come close on the heels of a charge against Cardinal George Alencherry of causing loss of Rs 90 crore to the Catholic archdiocese of Ernakulam in a controversial land deal. After an internal probe, the Vatican divested the Cardinal, also the head of Syro Malabar Church, of administrative powers.

It’s not the first time the Church in Kerala is facing a crisis, but the spate of scandals woven around wealth and women is one of its lowest moments since a decade ago, when a tell-all autobiography by Catholic nun Sister Jesme talked about sexual exploitation and torture behind the Church walls as well as the malpractices within it.

Battered by the autobiography named Amen, the Church had termed Jesme mad. However, voices within the establishment acknowledge that it is no longer possible for an organisation that keeps reminding its faithful of the Biblical verse ‘Wages of sin is death’, to brush the scandals under the carpet.

There is also a realisation that at a time when social media and the changing nature of society have altered the relationship between a priest and his congregation, the Church needs to adapt.

The 2011 Census puts the Christian population in Kerala at 18.38 per cent, the second-largest minority in the state after Muslims. However, the Church has played a disproportionately large role in Kerala by virtue of its pioneering educational and health care institutions. In the state, it took the lead in constructing roads, bringing electricity to rural areas, and even tying up with state-owned transport to ensure connectivity for villages.

Over the last two decades, with the rise of other religious groups, in social, cultural, economic and educational spheres, the space occupied by the Church has shrunk. Various Muslim groups and Hindu community organisations such as Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam have launched educational institutions. In the past, all colleges under Christian managements had priests/nun among the faculty while the clergy headed the institutions. With the UGC introducing eligibility test for college teachers, this number has dwindled. Alongside, while Church-financed hospitals were the byword for quality health care earlier, some of the prominent hospitals in the state are now owned by NRI Muslims or other non-Christian investors.

Simultaneously, the advent of the people’s planning programme, starting 1995, bringing to the fore a new battery of local politicians and activists, has eaten into the role played by the clergy at the grassroots level. Under it, needs were discussed and decisions on development taken at the grassroots level. Micro-finance schemes and poverty alleviation initiatives by various government agencies have, meanwhile, minimised the demand for Church charity.

One reflection of this shrinking role is the Indian Farmers Movement (INFAM), which was set up by the Church in 2000 to improve the fortunes of farmers hit by falling prices of their produce. In early 2000, the INFAM advocated direct export of natural rubber and other interventions. However, now it has been reduced to merely a body of bishops and priests.

Over the years, the responsibility of priests has diminished to merely managing the multi-crore properties of the Church. Many young priests are known to own luxury cars and enjoy access to modern facilities. Apart from monthly salary, they get donations from the faithful for administering personal services such as baptism and marriage.

Senior Orthodox priest Fr Dr T J Joshua, who is 90 and has been a seminary teacher for 50 years, says, “Priests now don’t have to go to any office or punch in anywhere. If not disciplined, this vacuum can create problems. Most of the young priests are also addicted to social media… I have been asking priests to focus on reading and visiting their congregations.”

However, Kuriackose Mar Theophilus, the official spokesperson of the Jacobite Syrian Church, Kerala, says it is wrong to say the clergy’s involvement has decreased. Instead, he argues, the nature of the involvement has changed. “It’s no longer an agrarian society. So our activities have gone up.
Women have a lot of issues, with them involved in professional activities on one hand, and on the other, tackling emotional problems due to husbands being abroad. They tend to share it with the priests, and more counselling tactics are required for it. Also, with the rise of Charismatic movements (a Catholic renewal movement, with more ecstatic worship practices), priests have increased their house visits, which have become compulsory. This increases the opportunities for them to mingle with families.”

Like in many other spheres it has impacted, social media has invaded the Church, breaching the wall that separated the priest and his laity.

Earlier this year, Catholic priest Thanninikkumthadathil Thomas, 35, of Pala diocese, was arrested on charges of raping a British-Bangladeshi woman. The woman reportedly came to Kerala to meet the priest after chatting on Facebook.

Says George Joseph, president of the Kerala Catholic Reforms Movement (KCRM), “Now even if a priest is transferred, he can maintain relationships with whom he wants. Several priests have trapped women in this manner….” The KCRM has been fighting for “rights of people in the Catholic Church” and for democracy in Church governance.

Fr Joshua agrees that “restrictions in man-woman relationships” have disappeared. Apart from allowing illicit relationships, he adds, social media has also changed family dynamics — further making affairs probable. “In the case of Orthodox priests, who are allowed to marry, the bonding within the family has come down,” he says.

Earlier this year, there was a case of a mother of two eloping with a young Catholic priest of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, a Syro-Malabar Catholic congregation, in Thrissur. A probe revealed that the affair had developed over phone. The Church intervened to bring the priest back to the congregation while the woman returned to her husband.

Three years back, a nurse working in the UK developed a relationship with a Catholic priest in the Thamarassery diocese, while on a visit home to Kozhikode, after approaching him over a dispute with her husband. Both kept in touch over the phone, and next year, when she visited again, the priest left with her for the UK. The nurse later left her husband.

The nun who has accused Bishop Franco Mulakkal of rape says he sent her lewd messages and obscene pictures over the phone. In the sex scam in the Orthodox Church, one of the priests has been suspended for having sex chats with the woman concerned.

This invasion of social media has coincided with the reformation movement in the Church to — ironically — ensure a continued toehold in the community. As part of this, retreat centres organise meditation programmes, where men and women turn up for prayers and queue up before confession chambers. Scores of such centres have come up across Kerala, with some attracting huge crowds, promising “healing of the mind and body”.

In a widely circulated YouTube video, Fr Daniel Poovanathil, a preacher of the Syro-Malankara Catholic diocese of Thiruvananthapuram, tells the faithful, “Those who hide sin would not get elegance. But those who confess sins would be delivered with mercy.”

Retired college professor Sebastian Vattamattom, editorial advisor to the KCRM publication Sathyajwala, says retreat preachers “give foolish interpretations of the Bible to create a sense of guilt and fear among the faithful” and accuses the Church of making money from people’s misery. “Priests’ survival seems to depend on confession,” he says.

The woman who has claimed exploitation lasting 17 years by priests of her Orthodox Church says it was one such confession, in 2009, that began it all. She says that on the eve of the first holy communion of her youngest child, she had confessed to Fr Job Mathew in 2009 that she had had an extra-marital affair with another priest, Fr Abraham Mathew. She had alleged that Fr Mathew abused her when she was a minor and before he became a priest, and this continued. According to the woman, Fr Job in turn subjected her to sexual abuse, threatening to reveal the confession she had made, to her husband. And that other priests then followed suit.

Read | Explained: Sexual assault charges against Christian priests in Kerala

There have been other instances where the Church is seen to have cited the canon law to side with priests, otherwise liable to be tried for cases under the civil and criminal laws. (Illustration by Vishnu PP) There have been other instances where the Church is seen to have cited the canon law to side with priests, otherwise liable to be tried for cases under the civil and criminal laws. (Illustration by Vishnu PP)

Sister Jesme, who lives in Thrissur, also talks of “bitter experiences” during confessions in her minor years. “Priests would ask unnecessary questions to me loaded with sexual overtones. When I became a nun, I was careful to choose the right priest to open up to. There are still pious priests in the system.”

Now, she has given up confession altogether, she adds. “The moment I realised that it is not Jesus who is sitting in the confession chamber, I stopped confessing.”

Dr C P Mathew, a retired physician who had exposed the rape of a minor girl by a young priest of the archdiocese of Changanassery in 1999, talks of his own wife’s “ordeal” in these confession chambers. “A young priest asked my wife once whether she would scratch her private parts. After that, she confessed before only very old priests.”

Church sources also acknowledge instances of priests making overtures to women during confessions, especially when they acknowledge sexual misdemeanour or masturbation. Last year, a priest in Changanassery archdiocese was manhandled as a result.

Says Theophilus, the official spokesperson of the Jacobite Syrian Church, “I would not say there is abuse of power among the clergy, but certainly there is increasing abuse of the freedom they have… Mostly it’s because of lack of understanding about freedom with responsibility. The clergy should be able to withstand challenges like changes in value systems, family atmosphere and the declining sense of respect for others.”

Fr Dr M O John, Priest Trustee, Malankara Orthodox Church, Kottayam, underlines the role confessions are meant to play. “It has an aspect of counselling. The priests should represent that. Some people misuse it. So we see it as a problem more of personalities rather than the system,” he says.

The other aspect of this system though is the cloak of respectability and the protection of canon law it offers, which many victims find hard to penetrate.

Earlier this year, when a faithful from Alappuzha approached the high court seeking direction to police to register a criminal case against Cardinal Alancherry in the land scam, the latter first sought cover under the canon law. The Cardinal said his authority could be questioned only as per that law and Pope was the only appellate authority. He went on to equate himself with a king.

The husband of the Orthodox woman who has raised sexual allegations against five priests says he first approached the Bishop of Niranam diocese. “But instead of acting, the Church tried to cover up the incident. It tried to malign my wife, justifying the priests. This forced us to go public.”

The nun who has accused Bishop Mulakkal of rape had earlier taken her complaint of alleged torture and harassment to various bishops, including Cardinal Alencherry. But was ignored, according to her. Alencherry has claimed that the nun had talked about the “torture” at the congregation, but did not mention anything about the sexual abuse.

There have been other instances where the Church is seen to have cited the canon law to side with priests, otherwise liable to be tried for cases under the civil and criminal laws.

In 1998, when Fr Cyriac Karthikapally of the Changanassery archdiocese was accused of raping a minor girl, who delivered a child, then archbishop Joseph Powathil had moved the case to the Church tribunal, allowing the priest to offer mass secretly. In its order in October 1999, the tribunal held it to be only a violation of the laws of the Church, saying, “This has caused harm and damage to the people of God.” Sources said the diocese first tried to let Fr Karthikapally go abroad, till some faithful objected. The girl’s family was given compensation of Rs 9 lakh and her child handed over to an orphanage. Karthikapally, however, left the order later.

Last year, in a similar case, Catholic priest Robin Vadakkumchery was accused of raping a minor, who later gave birth to a child. The Mananthavady diocese allowed him to migrate to Canada. He was caught just before he was to check into the airport in Kochi.

In 2015, after a seminarian alleged he was abused by Fr James Thekkemuriyil, the rector of Daiva Matha Seminary, Kannur, the Italian congregation Order of Minimus reportedly refused to act. When the victim moved the police in October 2016, the priest was arrested. The case is pending in court.
In recent years, many bishops in Kerala have been accused of helping priests involved in sex crimes or financial frauds join a foreign diocese.

Theophilus of the Jacobite Syrian Church admits this is wrong. “When the clergy violates Church rules, it has to be dealt with by Church authorities. But if the law of the land is broken, it has to be dealt by the rule of law. Sometimes we go for compromises only when the two parties want reconciliation.”

Dr Jacob Mar Barnabas, Chairperson of the CBCI Council of Women (Catholic Bishops Conference of India is the apex decision making body of the Catholic church in India), adds, “Theoretically speaking, the Church never tries to suppress issues. There is a standing instruction from the Holy Father (the Pope) that we have to adopt zero tolerance on these issues. However, it is the authorities’ duty to see that no complaint is motivated and we also try to avoid a public and media trial….”

Syro-Malabar Church spokesman Fr Paul Thelakat sees the absence of “moral leadership” as a reason for this lapse. He adds that unless it acts, the Kerala Church runs the risk of facing a crisis like one roiling their Western counterparts. “What happened in the West is also happening in traditional Churches of Kerala. Secularisation has already taken place… Mistakes could happen in the Church. But the real tragedy is to deny the problems or weaknesses,” he says.

Sister Jesme sees one of the problems as the “want of quality persons as clergy”. “As youths opting for priesthood and nunhood are shrinking, there is a tendency to enrol ineligible persons lacking true vocation,” she says.

Both Fr Thelakat and Fr Joshua agree that the scandals may further dissuade youngsters from joining. However, they also hope that this crisis could also ensure that only the youth with Church as their true vocation would join.

There are not many voices such as that within the Church. The other aspect of this system though is the cloak of respectability and the protection of canon law it offers, which many victims find hard to penetrate.

A Church study in 2009 found that 25 per cent of the nuns in Kerala were unhappy. Many were battling unfulfilled desires and bitterness, said the study, by Fr Joy Kalliyath. The social stigma and financial insecurity attached with a decision of leaving held many back. Sister Jesme admits that one of the reasons she could walk out of her congregation was that as a former college principal she got government pension.

The complaint of torture by a section of nuns of Missionaries of Jesus against Bishop Mulakkal is hence unique. Although nuns have quit over personal issues, this is the first time they openly revolted against a bishop.

There are not many voices such as that within the Church. The late Joseph Pulikkunnel, a Catholic who fought for democratisation of the Church, had been the most vocal rebel voice. However, he failed to win support.

“At retreat centres, preachers keep reminding the faithful against criticising priests or bishops… This forces many to remain silent,” says Shaiju Antony, convener of the Diocesan Movement for Transparency, a recently floated movement to fight against the Cardinal in the Ernakulam land scam.

“The laity are helpless. Progressive elements keep away from the Church. The power structure of the Church ensures that judicial, executive and legislative rights are vested with priests and bishops. We are demanding that the government implement the Church act,” says Sebastian Vattamattam.

A draft of the proposed Church Properties and Institutions Bill, drawn up by a committee headed by the late justice V R Krishna Iyer, has been pending with the government since 2009. The Bill would prevent the Church from running its properties under the canon law.

Fr Dr M O John points out that the Church itself is in a dilemma. “There are two views about reforms. While some say rules should be relaxed to make it attractive for youth, people tend to cry for stringent rules when such things happen.”

He also notes that the Church can’t be seen in isolation. “There is a rise in incidents of sexual harassment and sexual abuse also because these kinds of things are increasingly happening in all institutions — schools, colleges… Church is not a closed fort.”

However, he admits, “There has to be a change in the way we function, because when there is change in the concept (of the Church) itself, you cannot be static.”

Catholic priest Davis Chiramel, who donated one of his kidneys to a Hindu youth in Thrissur in 2009, says the Church needs to take its areas of interest beyond schools, colleges and hospitals. In modern times, identifying arenas of interventions, clergy should get closer to ordinary people, he says. Now chairman of the Kidney Federation of India, Chiramel adds, “Let priests and bishops live and behave like servants, without the paraphernalia of power.”

Taking a cue from Chiramel, one bishop, 20 priests and eight nuns had donated kidney to strangers.

Dr Jacob Mar Barnabas of the CBCI Council of Women points out the reforms the Church has put in place. “We have issued a document on sexual harassment at workplace and code of conduct for those who are working with Church institutions, in line with the civil law….”

Scandal sheet

2018
*Rape case against Jalandhar Catholic bishop Franco Mulakkal based on a nun’s complaint.
*Rape case against four priests of Orthodox Syrian Church for sexually exploiting a married woman.
*Orthodox Syrian Church suspended Fr O M Samuel following a complaint from a youth that the priest had an illicit  affair with his wife.
*Fr Binu George of Orthodox Church booked for raping a woman, who had approached him to settle a dispute with her in-laws in 2014.
*Catholic priest Thanninikkumthadathil Thomas of Pala diocese arrested for raping a foreigner.
*Cardinal George Alencherry accused of causing financial loss through a controversial land deal.

2017
*Fr Robin Vadakkumchery of Mananthavady diocese arrested for raping a minor girl.
*Fr Thomas Parackal of Congregation Society of St Eugene De Mazenod arrested for sexually abusing three minor boys.

2016
*Catholic priest James Thekkemuriyil, rector of Daiva Matha Seminary in Kannur, arrested for sexually abusing a minor.
*Priest Edwin Figarez of Kottappuram diocese sentenced to two life terms for repeatedly raping a minor.

2014
*Fr Raju Kokken of Thrissur Catholic diocese arrested for sexually abusing a minor.

2009
*Catholic nun Sister Jesme released her autobiography, Amen, which talked about sexual exploitation
and torture behind Church walls as well as malpractices within it.

The Church in Kerala

*Christian population in Kerala comprises Catholics (61 per cent), Jacobite and Orthodox Syrian (15.9 per cent), Mar Thoma (6.6 per cent), Church of South India (4.5 per cent), Dalit Christians (2.6 per cent) and Pentecostal groups (3.5 per cent).
*Within the Catholics, there are Syro-Malabar, Latin Catholic and Syro-Malankara Churches. These segments follow the Vatican. In the Catholic Church hierarchy, Pope is the topmost authority, followed by Cardinal, Archbishop, Bishop and Priest.

Canon law

The governance of the Catholic Church is based on canon law, which provides direction about the administration and hierarchical structure of the church. The law, which has seven parts, includes church’s preaching, catechesis (religious instructions given in preparation for baptism), missions and education. It dwells on property issues, crimes, appeals, and how the church court should be organised. The law also gives the Church the authority to punish criminals.

(With inputs from Liz Mathew)

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